"The Passing of the Armies" (US Civil War)

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The Passing of the Armies, by General Jashua Lawrence Chamberlain.

I have been a fan of the 20th Maine for as quite a long time. The 20th Maine was the unit that saved the day on the 2nd day of battle at Gettysburg. If you have seen the movie Gettysburg, then you have seen Colonel Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top. My family also knows this and sent me Chamberlain’s book about the end of the Civil War while I was in Iraq. It did not take me long to tear through that book.

The book is well written and starts off by educating the reader about the situation. GEN Lee’s army is in retreat and GEN Grant is trying to capture it. Chamberlain describes in great detail from the battle of Five Forks to the disbanding of the Army. He uses quite a bit of actual quotes. Below is my favorite passage of the book. Anything not in quotations is me paraphrasing.

“We received a hot fire which we did not halt to return fire as would expose us to heavy loses, but advanced at the double quick to go over the enemy’s earthworks with the bayonet. At close quarters the sharpshooters in the tree-tops cut us up badly, but we still pressed on, only now and then, here and there, delivering fire for ourselves…Just at that instant a heavy blow struck me on the left breast just below the heart. I fell forward on my horse and lost all consciousness.” The bullet had hit the horse in the neck, passed through Chamberlain’s document case and mirror, and hit his aid in the pistol, which knocked him off his horse. When Chamberlain came to, he was covered in his horse’s blood and could not move one arm. Most of his men thought he was dead and one newspaper had reported him as such. “In the shock my cap had fallen to the ground, and I must have been a queer spectacle as I rose in the saddle tattered and battered, bareheaded and blood-smeared…Pushing in among our broken ranks of our 198th Pennsylvania, the men might well have thought me a messenger from the other world…I was astonished at the greeting of cheers which marked my course. Strangest of all was that when I emerged to the sight of the enemy, they also took up the cheering. I hardly knew what world I was in.” Chamberlain soon found himself surrounded by Confederates who mistook him for one of their own because of his faded uniform that was covered in blood. Then he actually led them to his own lines in “a charge against himself.” Chamberlain was vague on what became of those Confederate soldiers.

Later on GEN Sheridan complimented Chamberlain as he placed his troops under fire. “By God, that’s what I want to see, general officers at the front.” Sheridan later said “then” cried he, with the vigor of utterance worthy of the army in Flanders, “You take command of all infantry round here and break this damn…”

Chamberlain also described how he had the artillery shoot solid shot into the trees to rain wood splinters on the enemy. Near the end, he tells how a messenger came over from General Longstreet. As I remember it, the message read “by God, we are starving over here.” The book ends with the order that disbanded the Army. “By virtue of special orders, No. 339, current series, from the Adjutant General’s office, this Army, as an organization, ceases to exist.”

Anyone who enjoys a good book on warfare needs to read this one.